‘God wants it, so I accept it.” The words of Pope John Paul II, from the newly released DVD Testimony: The Untold Story of Pope John Paul II, express his attitude toward suffering and physical disability. In a culture increasingly inarticulate about death, and riddled with contradictory instincts concerning the disabled and the infirm, the life of John Paul II is a moving and instructive testimony.
Narrated by Michael York with commentary by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, a childhood friend of the pope and his personal secretary in Rome, Testimony has a reverent and personal tone. The film does not delve into Cold War politics, nor does it investigate the origins of the assassination attempt, nor does it mention, let alone assess, the pope’s handling of the sex-abuse crisis in the church. Yet, it is a captivating portrait of the life of Karol Wojtyla. It covers his entire life, from his childhood in Poland, his youthful and abiding interest in art and theater, his time under Nazi rule, his vocation to the priesthood, his elevation to cardinal and eventually to pope, his conflict with the Soviet empire, the birth of Solidarity in Poland, the attempts on his life, his world travels (particularly his trip to Israel), to his declining health in later life and his death.
Dziwisz’s behind-the-scenes observations about the two assassination attempts, almost exactly a year apart (1981 and 1982), are informative. He notes that the first attack, in St. Peter’s Square, left the pope badly in need of a blood transfusion. The first transfusion did not take, as his body rejected the blood. A second attempt succeeded with blood from the doctors themselves: “That’s how the doctors saved the pope,” Dziwisz explains, “They donated their own blood.” Because the attempt on his life occurred on the anniversary of the first appearance of our Lady of Fatima in Portugal in 1917, the pope credited his survival to her intervention. A year later, on a pilgrimage to Fatima, where he delivered the bullet that nearly killed him, there was a second attempt on his life, this time by a deranged priest. Dziwisz reveals that the knife attack actually wounded the pontiff — information not made public until recently.
Famously, the pope visited the first would-be assassin in prison, and although he never made public what words were exchanged, he did assure Mehmet Agca of his forgiveness. Defiant in the face of oppressive political orders, John Paul II accepted the evil inflicted on him and the suffering he endured as an opportunity for greater service to God. But death and loss were early experiences for Wojtyla, who once observed that by the age of 20 he had lost “all the people he loved” — both his siblings and his parents.
In his later years, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, the pope became increasingly enfeebled, with slurred speech and trembling hands. Dziwisz’s recollection of the pope’s assiduous preparation, just days before his death, for his annual “Urbi et Orbi” Easter address is emotionally wrenching: The pope labored hard over the text, but when he stood to address the assembled crowd he found himself unable to speak.
His peaceful surrender to providence, not to be confused with a Christian Scientist antipathy to modern medicine, highlights another distinctive feature of the pope’s life: the remarkable unity of his belief and practice, thought and action.
He affirmed human rights, but did so on grounds that seemed eccentric to the highly individualistic modern mind. His experience with totalitarianism allowed him to see the possibility of a horrifying development in the regime of rights: a tyrannical exclusion of the weak and voiceless by the powerful. In the encyclical The Gospel of Life, John Paul II identified a “surprising contradiction” regarding rights in our time. Even as the demand for the expansion of rights increases, membership in protected groups contracts. The unborn, the disabled, the mentally ill, those near death risk losing the status of protected individuals because they lack a sufficient degree of autonomy to count as fully fledged persons.
John Paul II also saw that at the root of our flight from death and disability was fear. And thus his testimony, which this new DVD captures in an inspiring manner, from his first words as pope to the last moments of his life: Be not afraid.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.